Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst is a case where a songwriter/performer’s talents have grown at the same time as his popularity and sales. His grasp on the strengths of his music seems to be increasing, judging by the increased consistency of each album, even as the Bright Eyes project also resembles one big experiment, evolving from style to style (punk to folk to country to electro) and shifting from internal angst to national angst. That last point is key: the progression of his songwriting has been one of outward growth. His personality on record has changed from an angry diaryist writing love letters to imaginary girls into a sensitive, still troubled, observer of the behavior of himself and others. As his songs take on more than just his own obsessions, the more powerful they get. Since the Oh Holy Fools split album, and the three albums after it, he’s been singing impassioned but carefully crafted songs that take stock of the emotional state of friends and strangers — expressing everything from joy at a newborn’s birth to distress over a friend’s anguish to concern about suburban sprawl.
Through all this, and his concurrent rise towards celebrity status, he’s managed to retain the idiosyncrasies of his music. It’s somewhere between stubbornness and artistic spirit, his drive to still mess around with sound combinations (as on the Digital Ash in a Digital Urn album) and stretch out or give unlikely beginnings and endings to his more proper-sounding folk songs. The popularity of the most folk-like of his albums — I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning — is proof that he has in hand a formula he could run with to monetary success for at least a few more years, but so far he doesn’t seem willing to do that.
As he’s messed around with musical styles, and lyrical perspective, he’s kept the dominant themes of his discography — loss, pain, the passing of time, feeling like an outcast, the theatre of life — alive. These obsessions are linked: that desire to screw with song style, to seek a feeling of freedom, and the fear that time is running out, that everything’s slipping away.
Musically Noise Floor reflects those rebellious leanings of Oberst, that time’s up-let’s mess-around direction, mostly because it’s a collection of obscurities which embody his raw artistic impulses. These are “rarities”: sketches, songs left behind, one-off collaborations, and from-the-heart tributes to musical heroes.
Covering 1998-2005, essentially his whole career, Noise Floor shows both the growth of his melodic/lyrical talents and the playful messiness of his music. Witness “Drunk Kid Catholic” coming after “Trees Get Wheeled Away”. The latter has a streak of a protest song in the ’60s tradition to it, one about religion, hate, and freedom. The former song tackles similar ideas in a more ramshackle way, as a would-be piano ballad breaks into a ragged punk-ish singalong, a round based on the lyric “the drunk kids and the Catholics / they’re all about the same / they’re waiting for something / hoping to be saved.” That pairing of two songs says much about Bright Eyes, past and present: the way he’s ever-balancing studious songcraft and a DIY punk spirit, the way he places societal observations in a personal context. It also says a lot about Noise Floor. It’s a demonstration of the fact that these songs are one level of quality down from his proper albums, in terms of completeness. The songs here are enjoyable in part for what they’re lacking, for how rough even the songs closest to the I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning level of “professionalism” are.
The songs on Noise Floor come from various sources: compilation albums, out-of-print 7″ singles, the cutting-room floor. There’s a Daniel Johnston cover (“Hell Town”) off a tribute album, a song off the Britt Daniel/Oberst collaborative EP (“Spent on Rainy Days”), both songs from the great “Motion Sickness” 7″ single, a previously unreleased, gorgeous cover of M. Ward’s “Seashell Tale”, and more. Some seem like drafts of songs that could have made the albums, others like experiments that didn’t really work. They all hang together well under the Noise Floor rubric; in its own way the album feels as representative of the Bright Eyes approach as any of his other albums.
Noise Floor contains treasure and junk, and often they’re one and the same. “Amy in the White Coat” is a rambling, mumbling folk song that grows in appeal as it continues, ultimately epitomizing the outcast-romantic tone of so many Oberst songs. “Happy Birthday to Me (Feb. 15)” is pure emotional drama, as overblown as Oberst gets, and enjoyable in that way, for how he doesn’t seem to hold a single emotion back. “Blue Angels Air Show” uses echo to set Oberst’s voice in a far-off dreamworld, while setting up a more tangible real-world scene. “I Will Be Grateful for This Day” represents both his continued interest in experimenting with rhythms and percussion and the ongoing theme in his songs of lost souls seeking hope.
There’s a half-finished quality to most of these songs, but that quality suits Bright Eyes, fits right in with the thirst, the journey within the songs. As great as I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning was, there’s moments when everything comes together so perfectly (usually around the time Emmylou Harris’ voice gains in prominence) that I long for something to mess up the scene. The songs on Noise Floor don’t rank with his best, but there’s a reckless spirit to the endeavor that’s alluring, and representative of his music overall.